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Plea Deal For Priest In LI Sex Abuse Case

Jan 29, 2003 | Newsday

The criminal charges against the Rev. Michael Hands, the most high-profile Catholic priest involved in Long Island's sex-abuse scandal, may finally be resolved next week in a plea bargain.

Almost 18 months after Hands was arrested on charges of sexually abusing a young teen from a family he had befriended as a parish priest, a complex deal was disclosed in a Riverhead courtroom Tuesday: With time off for good behavior, Hands would go to jail for about 16 months followed by 5 years' probation.

Suffolk County Court Judge Stephen Braslow told Hands he will sentence him to 2 years in jail if Hands pleads guilty Tuesday to two felony charges of sodomy and attempted sodomy. "All of this is subject to a presentencing report,” Braslow added. Hands, who has been cooperating extensively with the Suffolk County grand jury investigation into the Diocese of Rockville Centre, nodded in agreement but said nothing during the short proceeding.

The priest, once a rising star, is expected to be sentenced about six weeks after he enters the guilty plea. Hands, 36, has been suspended by the diocese since his arrest in May 2001.

Hands also faces similar charges in Nassau County involving the same teen. While the outcome in Nassau could change, defense attorney Peter Rubin said he expects that in March, Nassau County Court Judge Donald DeRiggi will sentence Hands to 6 months in jail and 5 years' probation, to run concurrently with the Suffolk sentence.

"This sentence will be fair all down the line, it addresses the needs not only of the defendant but of society,” Rubin said outside the courtroom Tuesday. The deal means that while Hands is on probation he will be closely supervised and will get "the intense counseling he needs,” Rubin said.

In resolving the case, the Suffolk district attorney's office agreed to reduce the most serious felony charge from second-degree sodomy to third-degree sodomy. That made it possible for Braslow to sentence Hands to a year in jail on each of the counts, allowing Hands to serve his sentence at a local correctional facility instead of an upstate prison.

Assistant District Attorney Emily Constant said her office has taken no position on Hands' sentencing. "We have complete confidence in relying on the court's discretion to fashion and appropriate resolution in this matter,” she said.

When Hands was arrested during Memorial Day weekend in 2001, the Boston sex-abuse scandal was still months away from making headlines. By spring 2002, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota had initiated the grand jury investigation into how the diocese handled priests accused of sexually abusing minors. Shortly afterward, Hands became a cooperating witness, testifying before the grand jury as well as giving a sworn statement to be used by the victim's family in a civil case. In return, Spota's office was prepared to recommend only 6 months in jail.

However, earlier this month, Hands sent an e-mail to a friend of the victim's family, a contact that was reported to Spota's office. Spota's office rescinded its recommendation of a more lenient sentence and on Jan. 13 asked the court to keep Hands in custody until a plea bargain could be worked out.

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